We had a really great question from a new subscriber that follows on the last newsletter's topic:
What do we feed the cows once the snow covers the ground?
Maybe that seems like a simple question, or maybe you've never really thought about it - but as farmers who plan on keeping over 250 animals healthy and well fed all winter, we think about this question ALL YEAR, and prepping for winter accounts for a huge amount of what we do during the warmer months.
In order to understand how we feed throughout the winter, it helps to understand what our spring/summer/fall feeding looks like here at Keyser Creek Farms.
What's really to understand?
You say you pasture your animals, so you just let 'em out, right?
Well, there are lots of beef farms across Ontario that have large open pastures, like a ranch (just not as big as the ones out west!). The cows are put out in the pasture to graze, hang out... wander. Maybe they have access to the barn and water, or maybe they're in an open field with a pond and a shelter of some type. This is called continuous grazing - they just have free range in an open pasture.
Here at Keyser Creek Farms, we use our pastures very differently.
It's called Intensive Rotational Grazing.
We've seeded our pastures with a mix of alfalfa and grasses, and we move animals through smaller sections of the field in an organized and scheduled manner (with flexibility, of course!).
For those who want a little more explanation and comparison of the various styles of grazing (like: continuous, slow, planned, mob, intensive), this is a great article:
Rotational Grazing Systems Explained and Intensive Pasture Management (maiagrazing.com)
Benefits to intensive grazing include:
- increased forage production from the same amount of land
- improved soil health
- increased carbon sequestration
- drought resistance (our land can actually absorb more water!)
- more consistent fresh feed access
- less selectivity from the animals (all the plants are always young and fresh - they're not navigating around old dry stems, or pokey thistles)
AMAZING! So, why doesn't everyone do it this way?
A few reasons:
- It's expensive to set up. We have invested a lot of time, energy, and money "planting posts" on our farm. Not only around the pastures (everyone needs those), but through the middle: think of a center highway where we can create on/off ramps to the different paddocks at any time. We also need to buy lots of wire reels and 'pigtails' (a tall insulated ground spike with a pigtail loop at the top) for setting up all the temporary paddocks.
- It's physically more labour intensive. In the summer, we might move a single group through 2-4+ paddocks every day. Multiply that by the various groups = hanging out with cows a lot!
- Management is huge! We can't let them overgraze a paddock, or it can potentially damage regrowth for a long time. There are many different variables to keep on eye on for proper paddock management, including:
- soil moisture - if the ground is too wet, their hooves will sink and damage the plant roots, stunting or killing regrowth
- drought - dry land will have difficulty providing moisture for plants to regrow, so you need to move animals faster
- seasonal plant nutrition - the stem to leaf ratio changes the nutritional quality of the pasture; leaves provide more nutrients, so if the weather patterns have create ideal growth for stemmy plants, they'll need to eat more for appropriate sustenance
- # of animals per group - this also depends on their age and size; larger and older animals will eat more, and do so at a faster rate, so they need to move through the paddocks faster
- # of groups - you must leave appropriate re-growth time in each paddock before another group grazes that land, if we have lots of animals to move, they are in and out faster so there is more forage for the next (yet, enough time between groups for any harmful bacteria to die off so there is no fecal contamination from one group to another)
So we are taking the past weather conditions into account, as well as gauging what the upcoming weather forecast will bring... since we all know how reliable weather forecasting is, we also have to continually change our plans and adapt to what really comes at us!
If you ever drive by our pastures in the summer and fall, you can actually see the different shades of green that delineate the paddocks as the forage is re-growing in its different stages! It also means that if sections of the pasture get 'too far ahead', we actually will mow and harvest parts of the pasture to ensure proper growth staging. This is obviously not idea, as it's very inefficient with our time and equipment, so we aim to manage our rotational grazing as best we can!
TIME. MONEY. ENERGY.
Our way takes more of all three.
Does it make our animals healthier? Yup.
Does it make our farm more sustainable? Absolutely.
Do we think, generally speaking, this is a better way for all farms? We do.
Is it feasible for all farmers? Maybe not.
Unfortunately, farming choices still have to work in the world of business and profit, and farmers still need a reliable income to pay for their own mortgage, food, and bills. So, honestly, this type of system may NOT financially pencil out for most regular beef farmers.
I don't know if you're aware of this, but beef farmers almost ALWAYS have a second job - and it's typically the bread winner. StatsCanada shows that most beef farmers attribute less than 12% of their annual income to the farm...** So, why would they invest extra money into a system that NEEDS them to be home in order to manage properly? For other farmers, it may not make sense from a financial perspective.
We are very intentional that we want farming to be our "one and only" - we're going to work on creating a dynamic farm that provides us with various streams of income; however, we don't want jobs off farm... and we'd LOVE to find ways to help our kids and others enter the world of agriculture. So, we're home every day, we work here every day... for our farm, intensive rotational grazing is just another side-by-side benefit our beef cattle get from being raised with the dairy cows. For us, it makes sense, and we firmly believe our animals (and your food) are the better for it!
....and you thought we just opened the door and let them go, didn't you!?!?